When Eddie* was in middle school, he was struggling — badly. He had an individualized education program (IEP) and was in special education classes because he was so far behind. His teachers were even thinking about giving him a 504 plan, something that would label him as disabled and allow special accommodations for his education.
That was before his mother signed him up to work with Real Fathers Making a Difference, a Huntsville nonprofit that pairs young men with absentee fathers up with other men who are willing to step in and mentor them. LC Smith started the program a decade ago to start impacting the young people of Huntsville.
Eddie started off in the nonprofit’s summer program for reading and math, where kids who need extra help are paired with tutors who can get them back on track before the next school year starts. Eddie worked hard over the summer, and by the time he got back to school, he didn’t even need an IEP — or special education classes.
By the next semester, Eddie was taking advanced classes. He stayed with the Real Men Making a Difference program throughout high school, and now he’s about to graduate from high school.
“His confidence is built because he realized he could do a lot more than he thought he could,” LC said.
Stories like Eddie’s are a dime a dozen for the boys coming out of the program. Like Eddie, many of Huntsville’s kids are missing a father figure in their lives. Like Eddie, most of them just need confidence and someone to keep them on track. So when LC saw a need in the parenting of some Huntsville families, he decided to do something about it.
“One of the main (goals) we have is working with boys and young men with absentee fathers or limited positive male influences, So the emphasis is really supporting moms who are struggling to raise their sons without certain male support.”
In the US alone, there are 19.7 million kids growing up without a father. That’s 1 in 4 American children without a constant male role model, according to the US Census Bureau.
“The truth is, there’s a lot of fathers who are not involved in their kids’ lives,” LC said.
It creates a gap for these kids. They know there’s supposed to be a mother and father present. They watch TV. They read stories. Kids know what a family is supposed to look like.
“Sometimes they feel like they’re not wanted,” LC said. “There’s all kinds of different things that can affect them by the fact that they know that someone who is supposed to be there (and) chose not to be there is really enough to be sure that both parents are there.”
LC isn’t looking to replace all the fathers who are MIA. He’s just looking to fill in the gaps when single moms need help.
If you think about it, LC is right. We do have a double standard for men and women when it comes to parenting. It’s something LC understands from a personal perspective.
“I grew up without a father,” LC said. “My mom and my father (were) married, but once they got divorced — I was a kid — he kind of never maintained a relationship with us after that. So I realized that most of the people I knew, they didn’t have fathers that were involved, and I felt like society was giving fathers a pass, like it was almost normal for fathers to not be involved. If a mother isn’t involved, that’s an issue … but Dad gets a pass.”
It’s an issue LC wanted to bring awareness to, so he started to write a book. Instead of going the author route, he discovered he could make more of a difference by actually being there for young men in the community.
Moreover, LC has three sons. He knows what it takes to raise strong men, and he knows that parenting can be difficult. It’s not that mothers can’t raise strong men alone— many women have done it— it’s just that mothers and fathers react to things differently.
And boys just need their fathers.
LC started Real Fathers Making a Difference to make sure boys grew up with healthy male role models in addition to making sure they didn’t repeat the same mistakes their fathers did.
“I just wanted to plant seeds about encouraging dads to be involved, talk to young men about practicing abstinence, or to at least use preventable measures to be sure they didn’t father kids before their time so they can always be in the position to take care of kids when they plan to have kids, when they’re married and established financially,” LC said.
LC and his team of volunteers talk about everything from girl problems to puberty. For a single mother raising a preteen or teenage son, having “that talk” can be awkward at best. At worst, the topic will go avoided to save everyone from embarrassment.
That’s where having a team of male role models comes into play. Recently, during one of their life skills classes, they talked about all the changes they’d be going through in puberty.
The life skills class is just one of a handful of programs designed to get these boys off on the right track. They also do community service programs and teach them skills they can then turn into careers — things like gardening and landscaping instead of sitting in front of video games all day. On top of that, they push education — checking report cards, making sure everyone is going to class and offering tutoring sessions for those who need it.
“We go to schools and talk to teachers,” LC said. “We also take them on different trips for exposure to do things that they probably normally wouldn’t do.”
Those trips have included skiing, helicopter rides, rappelling, ATV riding and horseback riding.
“We do a lot of things to really broaden their horizons so they can be exposed to and realize there are things outside of the box that they’re in,” LC said.
As for the mentoring side of things, it’s a 24/7 relationship. LC recently had one boy text him at midnight about a girl problem he was having. After asking why the boy was up that late on a school night, he helped him work it out. It wasn’t a big thing, but it was something a boy couldn’t go ask his mom about.
The Real Fathers Making a Difference tutoring program is not just for boys and young men, either. It is for boys and girls who need some extra help during the school year, and the transitional program is for older teens and young adults who are looking to start their lives as adults. In all, Real Fathers Making a Difference works with about 150 kids, teens and young adults in the Huntsville area.
Real Fathers Making a Difference is about to celebrate a decade of helping others, and there’s no telling how many lives have been changed just by having men show up in the lives of young men. There’s no sign of stopping, but the world can breathe a little easier knowing the next generation of young men are learning to be strong leaders from a young age.
If you’d like to get involved, check out the 10th anniversary celebration on Sept. 14 at the Holiday in Research Park. You can find out more details online.